Saturday, August 2, 2014

Cleaning house.



To most Americans, Zen is strange and seems irrelevant. I’ve tried for years to simplify Zen and teach the Dharma, so common people could understand and profit by the wisdom. For the most part I think this has been a road to nowhere and my words have fallen on deaf ears. I now no longer try to teach the nuances, that while important, can obscure the real value: right thinking leading to right effort.

But then I reflect on this matter of frustration and factor in what the Buddha said: “The greatest action is not conforming with the world’s ways and the greatest effort is not concerned with results.” Nobody can see the future and in ways beyond our awareness none of us knows the true impact of our efforts, and following the road less traveled can be lonely.

The story of John Chapman (known as Johnny Appleseed) is instructive. Johnny was an American pioneer nurseryman who introduced apple trees to large parts of the Mid-Atlantic region of The United States. He became a legend while still alive, due to his kind, generous ways, his leadership in conservation, and the symbolic importance he attributed to apples. He journeyed alone throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, including the northern counties of present day West Virginia planting seeds he knew would mature long after he died. He patiently went about his commitment with no concern for results.

Rhetoric without expression is not worth the time of day but there is presently a mood at work that troubles me greatly and Zen offers a perspective that may be useful. To one who has studied and practiced Zen for many years there is an inescapable conclusion which seems odd but is true nevertheless—that we are all as different as snowflakes but essentially just indiscriminate snow. We all appear to be uniquely different but at our core we are united and one. In an ordinary way all we see is difference and when we are enjoying the good life we are reluctant to share our wealth with others who appear different.

A common political mantra in the land today that emphasizes our differences and denigrates our unity goes by the name of Makers and Takers, suggesting that makers are singularly responsible for their own wellbeing and takers are leaches who suck up the life-blood earned by the makers.

In his commentary on the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment, Chan Master Sheng Yen said that nobody having good dreams wants to wake up. Only when they have nightmares are they eager to do so. The point of his observation is that there is a correspondence between the magnitude of both suffering and awakening. While in the Marines we put this in different terms by saying that a problem is never significant until it becomes your own. Then only does it seem to be meaningful. The entirety of Zen concerns the alleviation of suffering. There is no other purpose for this quest than that. So some reading this may think to themselves, “I don’t suffer so Zen isn’t right for me.”

I have two rejoinders to this observation: not yet, and denial. The not yet part is the realization that it is impossible to live and not suffer because the fundamental nature of conditional life is suffering. The denial part concerns resistance (a form of attachment which creates more suffering). Nobody wants to suffer and unfortunately this motivates many to stay in states of denial. The pain seems too sharp to face so we stuff it down and try to go on with life. But this can eventually be a large problem because it isn’t possible to keep suffering locked away forever. Sooner or later the seeds of unresolved trauma we locked away in our subconscious, sprout and seep out to corrode our sense of wellbeing. In a peculiar way this emergence of subconscious seeds of trauma is like the apple seeds that Johnny planted. PTSD is exactly that: tragedies that couldn’t be resolved, have been buried in deep recesses of our mind and sooner or later wreak havoc.

When you learn to mediate (and practice it) all of that suppressed mental poison gets released, you clean out the pipes and move on toward wholeness. It isn’t fun to lance that boil but it beats living with the compacted aftermath of suppressed suffering. Along the way toward restored mental health there can be wide swings from one depth to the opposite, but this is the necessary result of mental house cleaning. Zen is not a practice for the faint of heart. It’s only for the most desperate and those who exhibit the necessary courage to go through the anguish required to have a life worth living. And when you arrive at your goal you realize that you can only really alleviate suffering by becoming a servant to all, regardless of distinctions.

“The greatest action is not conforming with the world’s ways and the greatest effort is not concerned with results.”
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